Betty / Torment / The Swindle: 3 Classic Films by Claude Chabrol (Cohen, Blu-ray) – Claude Chabrol has been called the Gallic Hitchcock because of his fascination with the Master of Suspense (he co-authored the first groundbreaking study of Hitchcock with Eric Rohmer in 1957) and his career-defining work in the suspense genre.
But where Hitchcock is fascinated by doubles and guilty innocents, by the everyman rising to the challenge when his very existence is questioned and redefined and spinning out of control, Chabrol is more interested in the killers and their loves ones, in the inner lives and the possibilities that may save them from themselves, and in the ambiguous relationships and emotional connections between victims and victimizers. At their best, his films reveal characters with complex psychologies and often destructive and unhealthy relationships. This collection presents three Chabrol films from the 1990s that emphasize the psychological troubles of the characters.
Betty (France, 1992), based on a novel by Georges Simenon, stars Marie Trintignant as the boozy title character we meet at a bar: her eyes sunken, her expression blank, a dead smile greeting the man who inadvertently introduces her to the two people who will get her through her suicidal depression: the maternal Laure (Stéphane Audran), a middle-aged widow living in a Versailles hotel, and Mario (Jean-François Garreaud), owner of the restaurant that seems to give strays a home.
Paris Belongs to Us (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Jacques Rivette’s 1961 debut feature, makes its U.S. home video debut in a Criterion edition, which is fitting for a founding brother of the French nouvelle vague and frankly about time for Criterion. It’s their first Rivette release and comes after Blu-ray releases of Le Pont du Nord (1981) and both versions of Out 1 (1971) from Kino Lorber. I call that a good start for the least appreciated filmmaker of that loose band of brothers (and one sister, Agnes Varda).
Familiar Rivette themes and fascinations are present from this very first feature. Anne (Betty Schneider), a small town girl in Paris for school, gets involved in a theater group led by the passionate but broke Gérard (Giani Esposito), whose rehearsals for “Pericles” have to keep finding new spaces as cast members drop out, and is introduced to vague, vast, international conspiracy by American-in-exile Philip (Daniel Crohem), a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist fleeing the blacklist and sliding into paranoia, alcoholism, and self-pity. He’s not just paranoid, he’s given up, content to lob cynical comments at pretentious parties with fellow writers and artists and then take refuge in his hovel of a room with the willing blonde Danish model next door. It’s as if he’s escaped McCarthyism convinced that it’s part of a global master plan. Anne’s older brother Pierre (François Maistre) has some connection to this group of artists, and perhaps the conspiracy itself, while Terry (Françoise Prévost), a glamorous American who lived with a Spanish composer and political activist named Juan who committed suicide before the film began, has since attached herself to Gérard and hovers around it all. The film hopscotches around Paris (some of the rehearsal spaces are marvelous little pockets hidden in the city) and the story kind of spirals in around itself.
There’s an intent seriousness to Paris Belongs to Us (and his sophomore feature, The Nun) that Rivette largely leaves behind with his subsequent features, which incorporate puzzles and a sense of play in his engagement with his conspiracies taht are less paranoid fears than literary themes escaped into the real world. Paris Belongs to Us, in contrast, is graver and a sense of despair takes over the artists and intellectuals who gather at parties to mourn the latest suicide of a colleague. The title itself is sourly ironic given the paranoia, the disappointment, the conspiracies, even the theatrical endeavor that, after struggling to find any stability, is smothered by its acceptance into the “legitimate” theater. Even the atmosphere (at least outside of the theater rehearsals, where a spirit of creativity remains) seems to breed disillusionment, with gray, overcast skies and chilly days. Paris does not belong to them at all. It belongs to the powerful, not the dreamers, and they powerful crush the spirits of the artists and idealists. Rivette’s attitudes evolved into something more hopeful even in the face of death in his later films.
Perhaps that’s why Rivette changed the way he made films later in the decade. Paris Belongs to Us is tightly scripted and directed. Out 1 and Celine and Julie Go Boating also engage in theater, conspiracies, obsessions, and playing detective to unravel a mystery, but they were launched with outlines rather than scripts, written along the way with the actors shaping the characters and suggesting the direction of the story. Films are collaborative efforts under any circumstances but Rivette clearly found his inspiration in greater collaboration, and the creative abandon of his later films have a more playful spirit and optimistic approach.
Yet for all the disillusionment of Paris Belongs to Us, there is a spirit of creativity and an existential sense of mystery. Why are the cops chasing Philip? Why has the tape of Juan’s guitar music gone missing, and what’s on it? What is Pierre’s part in all this? What exactly is this vast conspiracy? Schneider brings a spirit of curiosity and innocence to this little society that, for all its intellectual and artistic bonafides, is stuck in self-observation, and her detective work gives the film momentum. It’s a shame she did not continue on as an actress.
It should have been one of the first feature from the group of critics-turned-filmmakers—it was shot in 1958—but wasn’t released until 1961 for various reasons. By then the nouvelle vague had become defined by the fresh, spirited lyrical realism of Truffaut and the genre-busting and narrative experimentation of Godard and Rivette’s film, in many ways a reflection on the end of the fifties, looked decidedly conventional. Which is most certainly is not. It’s an accomplished, engaging, fascinating portrait of Paris at the end of the 1950s as the arts seem mired in tradition and political and social energy is suppressed at all levels. It’s interesting to see Rivette at the beginning, of course, but it is also engaging to see a different kind of cinematic rebellion, one that indicts the culture itself for its conservatism and fear of new ideas and innovation, the very thing that the nouvelle vague brought with a vengeance. Rivette captures the culture that the nouvelle vague rebelled against.
It’s also fun to go cameo spotting. Among the guests in the opening party scene are Claude Chabrol and Rivette himself, Jean-Luc Godard is a man at a sidewalk café interviewed by Anne, and Jacques Demy is also supposed be in the film (though I did not spot him myself).
Criterion presents the US home video debut of the film in a new 2K digital restoration mastered from the original camera negative. Presented in the old Academy ratio of 1.37:1, it’s like a throwback to classic movies with a modern sensibility. It looks lovely, capturing the often shadowy, overcast atmosphere of his Paris, but you may also notice grit and artifacts in some shots, elements that disappear at the next cut. Just as the new restoration of Rivette’s Out 1 (released stateside by Kino earlier this year), the folks behind this version remain true to the restorer’s job, which is to come as close to possible returning the film to the same state as its day one premiere. These imperfections reflect the realities of its production and whether or not Rivette would have removed them had he the technology at the time, it’s not up to the engineers and restoration producers to second guess him. Curiously, it’s the only part of the production that shows its low-budget, independent origins. The images are lovely, clearly carefully composed and beautifully shot by Charles L. Bitsch (who went on to become an assistant director for Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, and Jean-Pierre Melville).
The Blu-ray and DVD feature Rivette’s 1956 short Le coup du berger, which stars Jean-Claude Brialy and features appearances by his fellow film critics (and future nouvelle vague filmmakers) Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, and Francois Truffaut, and an interview with critic and historian Richard Neupert.
Claude Chabrol can do a traditional murder mystery and detective procedural as well as anyone. Just see his Inspector Lavardin films (released earlier in 2014 by Cohen) or his final feature Inspector Bellamy with Gerard Depardieu (on DVD from IFC). But it’s not where his heart lies. Chabrol, who has been called “the Gallic Hitchcock,” has always been more interested in character than plot and psychology than suspense but he’s at his best when he’s working them all together. His 1998 The Color of Lies features a murder in a small seaside community in Brittany, a dogged investigator, a prime suspect who can’t seem to help from making himself look more guilty, and a whole cast of back-up suspects to keep the audience guessing, but the mystery is primarily a charged setting for a character study and social portrait of an insular community wrapped up in gossip, suspicion, and fear.
On Sunday, November 24, Turner Classic Movies presents Le Beau Serge (1958) and Les Cousins(1959), the first two films by French film legend Claude Chabrol and the official birth of the French nouvelle vague.
The two confident, mature dramas don’t have the stylistic flash or narrative invention of the more famous works by Godard and Truffaut that followed, but that was always the way with Chabrol, the classicist of the “Cahiers du Cinema” crowd.
Where Truffaut added autobiography, enthusiasm and a palpable love of the act of filmmaking to his films, and Godard deconstructed filmmaking, storytelling and narrative expectations in his films, Chabrol used his camera like a microscope to study the psychology under the surface of human behavior in the Petri dish of social definitions and relationships. Alfred Hitchcock was his idol (he wrote, with fellow critic and nouvelle vague director Eric Rohmer, an early study of Hitchcock’s films) but it wasn’t the mechanics of suspense the interested him, it was the human equation: guilty, jealousy, obsession, the impulse to violence and crime and vengeance, the deflation of regret and loss. It all begins with these two features, which predated Truffaut’s The 400 Blows by mere months. True to form, they quietly established the arrival of a new talent, while Truffaut and Godard (with Breathless) created a seismic shift.
The two films are like a match set of city mouse/country mouse tales, the first in the dying community of a rural village (Sardent, Chabrol’s own hometown), the second in a decadent bohemian society of Paris, with Gérard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy as the provincial and the sophisticate (respectively) in both films.
Le beau Serge and Les cousins, the first two films from Claude Chabrol, mark the official birth of the French nouvelle vague. The two confident, mature dramas don’t have the stylistic flash or narrative invention of the more famous works by Godard and Truffaut that followed, but that was always the way with Chabrol, the classicist of the “Cahiers du Cinema ” crowd.
Where Truffaut added autobiography, enthusiasm and a palpable love of the act of filmmaking to his films, and Godard deconstructed filmmaking, storytelling and narrative expectations in his films, Chabrol used his camera like a microscope to study the psychology under the surface of human behavior in the Petri dish of social definitions and relationships. Alfred Hitchcock was his idol (he wrote, with fellow critic and nouvelle vague director Eric Rohmer, an early study of Hitchcock’s films) but it wasn’t the mechanics of suspense the interested him, it was the human equation: guilt, jealousy, obsession, the impulse to violence and crime and vengeance, the deflation of regret and loss. It all begins with these two features, which predated Truffaut’s The 400 Blows by mere months. True to form, they quietly established the arrival of a new talent, while Truffaut and Godard (with Breathless) caused a seismic shift.
The two films are like a match set of city mouse/country mouse tales, the first set in the dying community of a rural village (Sardent, Chabrol’s own hometown), the second in the decadent bohemian student society of Paris, with Gérard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy as the provincial and the sophisticate (respectively) in both films.
Claude Chabrol, the most doggedly prolific of the New Wave directors all the the through the to the final months of his life, died less than a year ago. To this day it’s as if we take him for granted.
Where we have deluxe, lovingly-restored and mastered editions of the films Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda and Louis Malle from Criterion, few of Chabrol’s classics have received even nominally respectable treatment on DVD (mostly from Kino and the defunct Home Vision label), many of his greatest films have been relegated to inferior DVD editions (See my survey of Chabrol on DVD, circa 2009, in this feature on Parallax View) and not a single title has been given the Criterion treatment. That is finally going to change, I’m happy to report, but that comes later. First comes a brief report on the stateside DVD debuts of two seventies Chabrol films from Pathfinder.
Pathfinder’s release of Juste Avant la Nuit (aka Just Before Nightfall, 1971), misspelled on the cover as “Avante,” and The Twist (aka Folies Bourgeoises, 1976) are among the worst-looking DVDs I’ve seen in the past few years. It looks like someone burned their old VHS tapes onto a DVD-R and tossed it out onto the marketplace. Juste Avant la Nuit, a thriller of infidelity and sexual games starring Stephane Audran and Michel Bouquet, looks like a TV print in the old Academy ratio (1.37:1), blurry and hazy and as low-fidelity as I’ve seen on DVD in recent years. The Twist, an English-language satire with Bruce Dern and Ann-Margret joining French actors Audran and Jean-Pierre Cassel, is even worse, a non-anamorphic widescreen presentation of one of Chabrol’s weakest movies. Zooming the film to fill a widescreen TV only magnifies the limitations in the already weak image quality and the optional French-language soundtrack offers no English subtitles.
Even Chabrol completists will want to think twice about adding these disc to their collection, but apart from importing foreign DVDs with only marginally better presentations, these are the only versions available at this time.
Claude Chabrol was one of the young critics-turned-filmmakers who ushered in the Nouvelle Vague in France and never stopped making movies once he started. He earned himself the sobriquet “the Gallic Hitchcock” for the psychologically compelling, emotionally jagged mysteries and thrillers that became his stock in trade over his fifty-year career and when he died in late 2010, he left behind a legacy of some eighty features, shorts pieces and television films made over a fifty year period. And yet it wasn’t until his final feature, Inspector Bellamy, that this grand old man of French cinema collaborated with another enduring French icon: Gerard Depardieu, the former scruffy-but-charming leading man turned bearish veteran with a commanding screen presence. While the lightfingered, offbeat murder mystery may not be one of Chabrol’s greatest works, there are major pleasure to be had in the final film from the old master.
Depardieu is the titular Bellamy, a veteran police detective and minor celebrity thanks to a memoir that an awful lot of folks in this small coastal town have read. He’s ostensibly on vacation with his wife Francoise (Marie Bunel) but as she observes, “Vacation is not in his vocabulary.” Sure enough, he soon drifts into a curious mystery involving an overtly enigmatic man (Jacques Gamblin) in hiding and the wreckage (physical and emotional) of what appears to be a botched attempt at faking his death. Depardieu has ballooned into a hulking bear of an actor but even with all that girth he brings an easy grace to Bellamy, a man who embraces the simple pleasure in life, be it food, cigars, wine or the crossword puzzles that he uses to occupy his wandering mind. In a sense, this mystery is simply a much more engaging challenge, which his wife understands all too well.
The final film by Claude Chabrol, the savvy nouvelle vague director who earned himself the sobriquet “the Gallic Hitchcock” for the psychologically compelling, emotionally jagged mysteries and thrillers that highlight his long (and sometimes rocky) career, may not be one of his great works, but there are major pleasure to be had in the minor production from an old master.
Hard to believe that in a career of some eighty features, shorts pieces and television films, this is the first time Chabrol worked with Gerard Depardieu, who stars as the titular Bellamy, a veteran police detective and minor celebrity thanks to his memoir. He’s ostensibly on vacation with his wife Francoise (Marie Bunel), but as she observes, “Vacation is not in his vocabulary.” He adores her and she understands him and merely makes wry remarks as he drifts into a curious mystery involving an overtly enigmatic man (Jacques Gamblin) in hiding and the wreckage (physical and emotional) of what appears to be a botched attempt at faking his death. As Bellamy drifts through the orbit of a missing embezzler, pulling at strands that the local police seem unable to grab to understand the real story behind a seemingly simple case of homicide, his ne’er-do-well brother Jacques (Clovis Cornillac) blows into town with a new investment scheme and the same old shenanigans and jealousies that start them going around and around like scrapping boys.
My review of the 1965 New Wave omnibus film Six in Paris, recently released on DVD by New Yorker, is up at the Turner Classic Movies website.
The omnibus film – a feature made up of original short films by different directors, organized by a theme or a place – flowered in the sixties, especially in Europe, where directors of international repute were gathered to contribute short films on a variety of themes. Films from Boccaccio ’70 (1962) and RoGoPaG (1963) to The Witches (1967) and Spirits of the Dead (1968) brought together the cream of European directors, and even today the omnibus film occasionally resurfaces, as with Paris Je t’Aime, comprised of 18 shorts by 18 directors shooting stories in 18 separate neighborhoods (the “Arondissements”). You can trace the inspiration for that particular cinematic love letter to the city of lights directly back to Six in Paris, a film produced by Barbet Schroeder and directed by six of the most interesting and distinctive young filmmakers working in France in the 1960s. The French New Wave had exploded in the late fifties, when Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge brought a breath of cinematic freshness and stylistic excitement to the largely staid French film industry. Barbet Schroeder, who was born in Tehran to European parents, grew up in Central Africa and Colombia, and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, had been an integral part of the movement. His ambition was ultimately to direct, but the filmmaker found his greatest contribution to the vibrant film scene as a producer of Eric Rohmer’s early films.
The inspiration for Six in Paris came from Schroeder, who hit upon the omnibus format as a way to work with most exciting young filmmakers in France and to explore the possibilities of shooting with new lightweight 16mm cameras. “It was the beginning of 16mm with direct sound,” he explains in a new interview on the DVD, and he hoped that the new technology would offer the young filmmakers the freedom of shooting quickly and spontaneously, on location and in the streets. Schroeder approached six directors he wanted to work with and offered them the challenge of making a short film in this new filmmaking paradigm. They had carte blanche to develop their own stories, so long as it all took place within a single neighborhood of Paris. It was something of a revolutionary idea, as even the low-budget productions of the French New Wave had all been shot on 35mm. The idea of mixing documentary and fiction techniques was primary in his Schroeder’s mind, and each director took up the challenge with essentially the tools but his own distinctive approach
Ed Harris directs this adaptation of Robert Parker’s western novel, an old-fashioned western with some modern ideas about relationships. But for all the romance, it’s ultimately a buddy film, a two-hander between the tough leader (Ed Harris) and the loyal best friend and support (Viggo Mortensen), a team of lawmen who hire themselves out to troubled towns that need a firm hand to clean up the lawlessness. “What do you allow, Everett?” asks Virgil (Harris) when the town elders of Appaloosa, a desert town at the mercy of rancher Jeremy Irons and his scruffy crew, offer him the position of town marshal. “It’s what we do,” Everett (Mortensen) responds. Nothing more need be said. They take up their posts in the town of Appaloosa, Virgil at point, Everett quietly taking up a strategic position as back-up.
Virgil is a classic Western loner type, unfazed by violence and unflinching in the face of superior numbers, but downright flustered around a pretty woman. Allison (Renée Zellweger) steps off the train all schoolmarmish, but she’s no blushing innocent. She shows unsentimental survival skills when she’s taken hostage in a showdown with the rancher. If Virgil judges her for it, the film is more understanding.
Harris the director isn’t the least bit troubled by Virgil’s legally dubious methods. There’s not much moral nuance or little character dimension, but that fits the genre just fine. “Appaloosa” is a well-told, thoroughly enjoyable and refreshingly direct buddy Western, and that’s more than enough.
Harris takes his time telling the tale and embracing the romance of friendship forged on the trail and under fire. The relationship between Virgil and Allison has a refreshing honesty as they stumble and compromise and come to an adult understanding. The unspoken bond between the two men is the real love story.
The old master delivers a murder and a sensational scandal, which curiously reworks the real-life turn-of-the-century Sanford White-Harry Thaw case dramatized in previous films (most notably “Ragtime”). But his direction is intimate and observational, and his story more about the psychological unease radiated by the possessive lovers and the emotional price paid by Gabrielle.